Duterte candidates dominate Senate elections, as opposition faces shutout

Supporters of Senatorial candidate Ronald Dela Rosa, the police chief who oversaw Mr Duterte's war on drugs, during a party meeting on May 11, 2019.
Supporters of Senatorial candidate Ronald Dela Rosa, the police chief who oversaw Mr Duterte's war on drugs, during a party meeting on May 11, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte’s allies are headed for a sweeping victory in this week’s crucial mid-term elections, shutting out the opposition in the all-important Senate race amid reports of vote-buying, faulty vote-counting machines and a stalled vote count. 

Unofficial results showed nine candidates of the Hugpong ng Pagbabago (Caucus for Change) political coalition, helmed by Mr Duterte’s daughter, winning Senate seats with nearly 93 per cent of the votes counted.

Twelve seats in the 24-member Senate were up for grabs.

With all but one of the candidates he endorsed landing in the “winning circle”, Mr Duterte is now assured of a “supermajority” there.

The opposition is down to just four senators, with one, human rights lawyer Leila de Lima, in jail for what she says are trumped-up charges.

Mr Duterte can now bolster his legislative agenda, which includes reinstating the death penalty, lowering the age of criminal liability of child offenders, and revising the country’s 1987 Constitution to allow a shift to a federal form of government.

“Undoubtedly, the Duterte magic spelled the difference,” Mr Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a news conference on Tuesday (May 14).

Senator Cynthia Villar, 68, wife of a property developer listed by Forbes magazine as the Philippines’ wealthiest, led Mr Duterte’s Senate slate, with over 24.4 million votes.

Two of the president’s closest aides – Mr Christopher Go, 44, his long-time personal assistant, and Mr Ronald dela Rosa, 57, the former police chief – were also guaranteed winners.

 
 
 
 

Mr Go was in third with 19.9 million votes, and Mr dela Rosa fifth with 18 million votes.

Former governor Imee Marcos, 63, eldest daughter of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who also ran under Mr Duterte’s ticket, was also set to win, placing eighth.

Only three candidates who were not part of Mr Duterte’s political coalition made it to the top 12.

Senator Grace Poe, 51, who ran as an independent candidate, placed second, with 21 million votes.

She told reporters on Monday (May 13) that she “doesn’t owe anything” to any political patron, and promised to “balance (out the Senate)” in the face of a landslide win by Mr Duterte’s allies.

“If the administration’s policies are good, why not? But if I see that (their stand on issues) is questionable, then I don’t owe them anything for me to follow (them),” she said.

All but two Senate bets from the opposition alliance Otso Diretso (Straight Eight) have conceded defeat. 

“It is clear that a great majority of our voters have chosen other candidates,” said Mr Romulo Macalintal, 71, a high-profile lawyer.

Ms Samira Gutoc, 44, the only Muslim candidate to run for the Senate, said in a tweet: “That’s just how it is.”

Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino, nephew of former president Benigno Aquino and the only opposition candidate with a chance of winning, was still trailing in 14th place as counting drew to a close.

Vice-President Leni Robredo, 54, who leads the opposition, said “the fight is not yet over”.

“It was worth it because we stood by our principles and what we believe in,” she said, as she accepted the election results.

Mr Arjan Aguirre, a political science instructor at the Ateneo de Manila University, said the opposition failed to dismantle the “strongman myth” that has fuelled Mr Duterte’s popularity.

“The strategy should have been to attack that narrative of Duterte, that myth, that people cannot just rely on a strongman politician to get what they want in our country,” he told the online news site Rappler.

Surprises came in elections in 16 cities in metropolitan Manila, as some political clans lost their decades-long hold in office to a younger set of candidates.

The family of former president Joseph Estrada suffered a wholesale trouncing.

Mr Estrada, 82, who was convicted for plundering the nation’s coffers in 2007 but was pardoned just weeks later by then President Gloria Arroyo, lost in his bid to be re-elected mayor of Manila to a 44-year-old former actor.

His family, meanwhile, saw their 50-year dominance in San Juan city end, after his granddaughter lost to a long-time political rival.

Two of his sons running for the Senate, meanwhile, were fighting for the last seat up for grabs, despite an endorsement from Mr Duterte.

Former vice-president Jejomar Binay, 76, was also set to lose in his bid to become congressional representative of Makati city, the country’s top financial hub. But his daughter was on her way to becoming the city’s next mayor, amid a damaging family feud.

In Pasig city, Mr Vico Sotto, the 29-year-old son of a popular comedian, overthrew a candidate whose family had been in office for 27 years. He had promised voters a “new kind of politics”, a message that appeared to resonate in the nation’s eighth-largest city.

The elections were marred by hundreds of faulty vote-counting machines and a stalled quick count.

About eight hours since counting began, 80 per cent of the election returns had been transmitted but the servers of an independent quick-count body and the websites of its partner media groups were not updating.

Then early on Tuesday morning, the percentage of election results being reported suddenly dipped to 49 per cent from 92 per cent before returning to 92 per cent two hours later.

Election officials said there was a glitch caused by malfunctioning data packets, but that the Commission on Election’s (Comelec) central server was “working perfectly”.

“The system suffered a shock with the rush of data. But there’s no cheating. We have a central server, and it is working perfectly,” Comelec commissioner Rowena Guanzon said in a radio interview.

The dip in election returns, meanwhile, was caused by a programming error that has since been corrected, she added.